Allyson Felix, the most decorated track and field Olympian in history, knew motherhood meant risking her career. The nine-time Olympic medalist had seen firsthand what runner Phoebe Wright called “the kiss of death” — pregnancy — can do to women athletes.
Now, she's qualified for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, her first since her traumatic birth experience.
“I have always wanted to be a mom, and spent my life putting my career ahead of those personal decisions,” Felix told TODAY Parents. “I feared how I might disappoint those who expected me to keep my career as top priority. But I knew what I wanted and it was time to put ‘me’ first.”
What Felix didn’t know was that pregnancy would put her life and the life of her unborn daughter at risk. She had managed to keep her pregnancy a secret, even competing at meets when she was four months along. But after doctors discovered she had high blood pressure and her daughter’s fetal heart rate was slow, Felix got diagnosed with severe preeclampsia and underwent an emergency C-section at 32 weeks. In an instant, it wasn’t just future competitions, her Nike contract or potential sponsorships in jeopardy. It was her life.
“I remember calling my family and asking them to fly in, and then asking my doctor if it was possible to wait to undergo surgery until they arrived,” Felix recalled. “But there were no promises. They had to act fast. I just wanted my daughter to be OK.”
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Thankfully, Felix’s daughter, Camryn, was safely born and, after spending time in the neonatal intensive care unit, made it home to Felix and her husband, Kenneth Ferguson. But the impact of Felix’s traumatic birth was long-lasting, and made her realize that no one — not even a world-class athlete and highly decorated Olympian — is impervious to the high maternal death rate plaguing the United States.
“I’m an athlete. I take great care of my body and was in great health. I had a birthing plan. I was at one of the best hospitals in the country. There was no way anything could go wrong, right?” she said. “But my eyes were completely opened to the fact that no one is immune from this reality and that Black women face significantly higher risks — ones I wasn’t really aware of and looking for.”
The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and the outcomes of pregnancy and childbirth are even more dire for Black women. Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.
In some areas of the country, the disparity is even greater — in New York City, a Black woman is 12 times more likely to die during or after childbirth than a white woman. Preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that can result in the death of both mother and baby, is 60% more common in Black women than white women.
“That really ignited the fire to learn more — to share my experience and to be an advocate for mothers everywhere,” Felix said.
Felix wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 2019, taking Nike to task for saying it would pay her 70% less than she earned before she became a mom despite her accomplishments, and also for refusing to “contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth.” The article drew widespread criticism of Nike; in response, the company announced a new maternity policy that guaranteed an athlete’s pay and bonuses for 18 months surrounding pregnancy.
“I am extremely proud to be an elite athlete and to have this legacy on the track, but it doesn’t stop there,” Felix said. “I am more than a sprinter. More than an Olympian. I am a mom. If I can use my voice and platform to speak on the inequalities facing Black pregnant women and the Black maternal mortality rate, I absolutely will.”
Felix spread that message in her keynote speech during HeyMama’s fifth annual Strong Like a Mama event.
“I know how important it is to have a support team when you’re trying to juggle it all," Felix said. "So when I was asked to speak to a community that celebrates mothers and looks to propel them forward? There were no second thoughts. I am really looking forward to sharing my experiences and hearing from others.”
As the country endures a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 Americans — a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting people of color — and as it simultaneously experiences a racial and civil rights awakening, Felix hopes her advocacy work will give white and non-Black people more opportunities to learn.
Felix said she hopes that one day her daughter, Camryn, will look at all her mom did on and off the track and feel proud, supported and inspired to use her own voice as well.
“(I hope she learns) courage,” Felix said of her daughter. “It’s what I found within myself by having her, and it’s what I hope she can learn from me. To listen to your heart, live fearlessly and be brave.”
This story was published in August 2020 and has been updated.